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Cuomo: State closely monitoring city schools reopening Thursday

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on Monday defended New York City’s plan to reopen schools amid a union plea for a state takeover, saying the state is closely monitoring the reopening of the nation’s largest school district for any upticks in positive coronavirus cases.

Cuomo, speaking a day after the union representing New York City school principals passed unanimously a vote of no confidence in Mayor Bill de Blasio and asked the state to seize control of city schools for the remainder of the coronavirus crisis, said the state would respond quickly if coronavirus cases spike.

"So we’ll get the numbers and we’ll act prudently based on the numbers," Cuomo said Monday during a conference call with reporters. "But I get the concern of the principals’ union and we will be watching the numbers very closely. And again, I think the concern of the principals’ union is also going to be shared by the teachers’ union and it’s also going to be shared by the parents of the students in New York City schools. If there’s a problem, there’s a problem, and the numbers will show if there’s a problem and then we’ll act accordingly."

The school system is gearing up for an influx of students this week, beginning Tuesday with the first day of in-person learning for elementary school students. Middle and high school students are scheduled to return on Thursday.

The mayor, speaking on NY1 Monday night, said he was "confused" about the no confidence vote because he had spoken to the principals’ union president frequently as they planned the school system reopening

"I’m not going to comment on their decision because it doesn’t make sense to me," said de Blasio. "The fact is we have been working with that union … We’ve been acting on a number of their concerns … I’m quite confused why they took this action."

De Blasio said the city infection rate of about 1.39% is "not anywhere near" the 3% on a seven-day rolling average infection rate that was set by the city’s health department back in July as the standard for school closures. He added that there will be "frequent" school inspections to ensure compliance with mask wearing and other measures such as social distancing.

"If we have to take more stringent steps in the next few days, we will," he said.

The state is also contending with clusters of new infections across the region, including in Brooklyn and Orange and Rockland counties. Cuomo said the state is dispatching 200 rapid testing machines to those areas.

Asked by a reporter if there was any scenario in which the state would take over a school district for perceived coronavirus failings, Cuomo did not rule out such state action.

"The data is key and we’ll act on the data," said Cuomo. "I understand the concerns of the principals’ union and look, if they’re right and there’s a health concern, then yes, the state will act, because it’s not just affecting the principals, it’s the teachers, it’s the students and the state will act.

New York City schools were scheduled to reopen Sept. 10 but de Blasio initially delayed the reopening following fierce pressure from unions, teachers, principals and parents, who say many of the Department of Education’s 1,400 school buildings lack proper ventilation, staff and supplies. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew threatened to strike over safety issues.

As part of the plan, children in pre-K and students with disabilities returned to classes last week.

De Blasio has said hundreds of thousands of students are expected to return to school by Oct. 1, but it’s not clear how many actually will attend.

About 40% of families have opted out of in-person classes through at least November and will instead do online-only learning. De Blasio said online learning has been frustrating for many families and is not as enriching as in-person education. He said it was especially important for schools to open for low-income students.

Students can opt out of in-person classes at any time.